World, we have a problem. The year we’re leaving behind was the safest, healthiest, happiest year in human history but you don’t believe it, writes Scott Gilmore today on Maclean’s.
The world has never been more peaceful, there has never been less poverty, and our societies have never been healthier.
So what’s the problem? Why do we feel as if things have never been worse?
Your mind is likely filled with thoughts of recent terrorist attacks, racial tensions and economic crises. Unfortunately, we are trapped in this pessimistic quagmire by both our brains and our smartphones. In evolutionary terms, we have only just climbed out of the trees, and our bodies are still wired to survive in the wild. As Dan Gardner, the author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, has eloquently written, our natural fight-or-flight instincts persist. When we were foraging on the savannah, the sight of one of our own being eaten by a lion scorched a lesson into our brain: fear lions. Now, the TV images of terrorist attacks on the other side of the ocean produce the same reaction. Our minds cannot help themselves. Stories and images influence us far more than numbers.
Which brings us to the second problem: information technology. Humans have never been exposed to as many of these stories and images as we are now. From the moment we wake up, a flood of radio reports, newspaper columns, TV dramas, Twitter links and Buzzfeed lists wash over us. Once, you needed to personally watch someone in your clan teach you a lesson about not petting lions. Now, there are 496,000 YouTube videos of lion attacks viewable from the phone in your pocket. It is no wonder we remain nervous wrecks.
This creates a perverse dilemma, which may actually lead to our own demise as a species. When we fixate on visceral but unlikely threats like terrorism or child abductions, we ignore the intangible but genuinely dangerous risks such as climate change. Sadly, our political class has discovered this bug in our code, and happily exploits it. Cynically they know the minuscule threat of Ebola carriers is more important to you than the inevitable threat of climate change.